Rescued green turtle survives to nest at Tortuguero beach
here is a famous fable in which a man scoffs at a little girl's efforts to rescue hundreds of mollusks cast up on the shore by a storm. To his question of what use it can be to attempt this infinite task, the child, who is returning a conch to the water, replies, "It matters to this one, sir." A recent event at Tortuguero bears out the wisdom of the fable and should give heart to conservationists that even small efforts to promote the recovery of endangered and threatened species pay off.
On July 20, 1995, Panamanian wildlife authorities (ANAM) confiscated a female green turtle from Ngobe Indian turtle fishermen offshore from Bast- imentos Island National Marine Park in Bocas del Toro, Panama. The turtle had been illegally harpooned, and was being held upside down in a small cayuca, or canoe, with all four flippers pierced and tightly bound. At day's end it would have been carried to one of the
Tortuguero Bocas del Toro
small villages in Chiriqui Lagoon where it very certainly would have been eaten.
But a different fate awaited. The wildlife officials confiscated the turtle because it had been caught illegally, and took it to researchers Drs. Anne and Peter Meylan who were carrying out a Wildlife Con- servation Society-sponsored project on marine turtles at the nearby island of Zapatilla Cay. The Meylans examined the big female, and determined that although she had a significant harpoon wound in the front of her shell, the wound was not life-threatening. They filled the wound with an antibiotic salve and, in keeping with what local turtle fishermen do to prolong the life of captured turtles until they return from their fishing trips, they closed the wound with clean strips of cotton rags. A few measurements of the turtle were made, tags
were applied to the flippers, and the turtle was re- leased that night under cover of darkness at Zapatilla Cay. The future for this turtle was uncertain. If the turtle lingered at the surface the next morning, one of the scores of harpoon fishermen that work these waters was sure to finish her off.
No news of the turtle was re- ceived until more than four years later, when she was encountered by CCC researchers on the nesting beach at Tortuguero, Costa Rica. On October 4, 1999, the turtle nested at Mile 2 of the study beach and her tag numbers were read by researchers. October is very late in the nesting season, so it is likely that she had also nested earlier in the summer on portions of the beach that are not monitored. Green turtles typically lay several clutches of more than 100 eggs each nesting season. The distance from Bocas del Toro, Panama, to Tortuguero, Costa Rica, is only about 200 km, or 125 miles. But MY142 had probably traveled much farther in the intervening period. Most likely, she had spent time on foraging grounds off Nicaragua. Ngobe Indian turtle fishermen return to shore in their small cayuca, or canoe, with turtles they harpooned during the day.
This turtle beat some difficult odds, and her even- tual nesting at Tortuguero, and contribution to another generation of green turtles, make it clear that every conservation effort counts. ANAM's actions to stop the illegal harpoon fishery are especially important because the fishery in Bocas del Toro almost exclu- sively targets reproductive animals, both males and females. Requiring some 30 to 50 years to reach sexual maturity, these animals are the most important members if the population is to recover.
By Dr. Anne Meylan
Anne Meylan, Ph.D. is a member of CCC's Scientific Advisory Committee and is a staff scientist with the Florida Marine Research Institute.
Dr. Anne Meylan